Friday, March 19, 2004

Does that allow you to blog?

Not a question that I would have asked even 9 months ago, but a question that I posed to an IT person showing me a demo of Microsoft's Sharepoint that they are looking to roll out. He didn't really answer my question, but rather proceeded to show me different features of the software. What I realized once I had left his office was that Sharepoint was in essence a blog (ok, it's a lot more than that and it's al ot more complicated than just blogging) -- it would allow me (provided I was given high enough permissions) to share information directly with other people on my teams and in my division. Even better, it allows the formation of discussion groups (a bit more robust than the "comments" function found on most public blogs) and allows me to share internal documents with full version control. My final words to the IT guy were that he should write a blog on how to use the software during roll-out.

FastCompany has an article from next month's magazine entitled "It's a Blog World After All." The article details several examples of how major corporations are using blogs both inside and outside their organizations.

From the article regarding how corporations are using blogs internally:

"Corporate America is jumping onto the blogwagon for many of the same reasons all those journalists, brooding teenagers, and presidential campaigners are already on board. Unlike email and instant messaging, blogs let employees post comments that can be seen by many and mined for information at a later date, and internal blogs aren't overwhelmed by spam. And unlike most corporate intranets, they're a bottoms-up approach to communication. "

"With blogs, you gain more, you hear more, you understand where things are going more," says Halley Suitt, who wrote a fictional case study on corporations and blogging for the Harvard Business Review . "Even better, you understand them faster."

I'll be real honest, I'm not entirely sure that people out in the field know what I do all day in the office. I certainly wouldn't have a problem blogging every morning just to let people know what I'm working on. Probably someone else is working on exactly the same thing, and we may actually be duplicating effort. Furthermore, I'd like to share information that I find that I think might be useful to the people in the organization, but I am cautious about sending too many e-mails to distribution lists -- I don't want to get a reputation as an internal spammer -- and a blog would give people the ability to opt-in to reading information I provide rather than having to opt-out by deleting my e-mails without reading them.

The key to selling this to your IT Department, from the article:

"So do blogs hold the key to seamless sharing of collective corporate intelligence, the holy grail of knowledge management? Web log software is cheaper to install and maintain than many knowledge-sharing programs, and it's extremely simple to use. Knowledge software often requires employees to take both an extra step and extra time to record what they know, and to fit their knowledge into a database of inflexible categories. Internal blogs are more integrated into a worker's regular daily communications."

The key part of the paragraph above being the word "cheaper," of course. Chances are there is enough space on a server that already exists to host basic blogging software. In fact, there is open source blogging software that your IT department probably already has the infrastructure to support.

So what's the problem with blogs? According to the article:

". . . that informal transparency is precisely why many companies' embrace of blogs is at best uneasy. Internally, blogs have the potential to let employees who wouldn't otherwise be seen as authorities have a voice with a lot of impact. "[Companies] are not going to be able to stuff it back into the box," says Greg Lloyd, CEO of Traction, a business-oriented blog software company."

I'm sorry, but are we really that scared of or do we really trust our employees so little? The paragraph above seems like an absolutely ridiculous argument. But consider that so many companies are so politically motivated and sensitive as to be almost unable to make decisions without including everyone for fear of offending someone or upsetting the political structure. When you consider that, you begin to at least see one side of the argument listed above. So here's the million-dollar question (or what should keep all of you who are scared to give your employees the power to vocalize internally for fear of them getting more power than you): What are you going to do when your employee uses a freely available service to achieve the seem effect, but does it so the whole world can see what he/she is writing?

From the article:

"Letting employees speak directly to customers requires a huge amount of trust. A loose cannon might reveal corporate secrets, give out the wrong message, or even open up the company to legal trouble."

Nothing seems to be stopping anyone that is producing these public business blogs from blogging. Although all of the blogs that I read seem to be very vague about the author's specific company and that person's specific feelings about their company, it's really just the author who is deciding to conduct themself that way, certainly nothing that the company is doing. I can understand companies being concerned about employees divulging trade secrets, intellectual property, violating NDA's, I really and truly can. But "give out the wrong message"? What is that supposed to mean? If I ran a company and a single employee with a blog was able to alter customers' perceptions about messaging, than the real issue is that the company is not managing their public messaging well, and certainly could be an indicator that said company is not taking care of its employees. Remember:

"That is -- and this, dear Watson, is elementary -- if you genuinely want to put customers first, you must put employees more first."
-- Tom Peters on CEO of Rosenbluth International, Hal RosenbluthÂ’s business policy (from: Tom Peters, The Pursuit of Wow)

Ok, so beyond the internal use of blogs, what else are they good for? For all of these publicly viewable blogs that attract eyeballs, the answer, of course, is advertising. People that read blogs, however, are not all that stupid. Instead of going to blog pages directly, many people read blogs using news aggregators that pull content feeds from the blogs and aggregate the information with the news aggregation program -- end result: banner ads, popups, any sort of visually-driven web advertising is ineffectual. So what's a marketer to do? Get the blog author and visitors to talk about a product, of course!

From the article regarding viral marketing through blogs:

"That's why some businesses are going straight to bloggers for buzz. Random House's Crown Publishing sends books to bloggers for review. Nokia sent a small group of bloggers its 3650 model camera phone to take for a whirl."

So outside of viral marketing, is there are real use for blogs in the corporate world? I scream out loud a resounding YES!

But for those of you that need further proof, from the article:

". . . 10e20, a Web design firm in Brooklyn, recently began requiring employees to post updates on their progress to a blog twice a day. Within the first six weeks, 10 projects were turned in early. Having a central repository for information helped--but so did the added scrutiny that came from letting everyone see how a project was progressing. Software maker Macromedia, one of the first companies to adopt blogs for customer service, saved tens of thousands of dollars in call-center support when it released a crop of new products for software developers in 2002. A trusted group of employees started blogs to answer users' questions, and the blogs have grown into online communities that give Macromedia valuable customer feedback."

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